It's essentially a wrap for Arnold Schwarzenegger's role as governor. I'll give his Sacramento performance 21/2 stars.
That's a little better than the reviews for most of his movies, although in Sacramento — except for some exciting early scenes — the "action hero" part he tried to play fell flat.
I remember vividly his get-acquainted meeting with the top four legislative leaders seven years ago. "Action, action, action, action! That's what people have voted me into this office for," Schwarzenegger said.
And I recall the mock bemusement, the knowing look of then-Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), with decades of lawmaking experience. Burton, who was sort of rolling his eyes at the political neophyte, already could see into the future.
Many critics may quibble that 21/2 stars is too generous. But Schwarzenegger deserves credit for a solid finish on the following sorely needed reforms:
Open primary and independent redistricting systems. Paired together, they should lead to the election of some pragmatic legislators, who could become a moderating influence on the currently polarized Capitol.
Budgeting reform — specifically a beefed-up rainy-day fund — that will be on the 2012 ballot.
Pension reforms. He took a big step toward rolling back benefits for new state hires to what they were before 1999, when then-Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature generously paid off unions for their political support.
The departing governor also gets credit for his futuristic attack on global warming, an ambitious assault that will place California on the cutting edge of renewable energy and the "green economy."
In fact, much of Schwarzenegger's final year as governor was spent in an uncharacteristic defensive mode, protecting redistricting reform and the global-warming fight against ballot initiative attacks.
"Reforms" are in the eye of the beholder, of course. And to me — and the majority of the Nov. 2 electorate — Schwarzenegger was on the wrong side of one very badly needed reform: reducing the vote requirement for legislative passage of a budget from a gridlock-inducing two-thirds to a simple majority.
Schwarzenegger — along with Republicans and business lobbyists — used the two-thirds requirement to hold the budget hostage for tax breaks and other goodies. For his part, the governor gamed the two-thirds rule to achieve the open primary, budget and pension reforms.
Few things political are black and white.
There may even be some critics outside the governor's office who contend Schwarzenegger deserves a 3-star rating. But they're fantasizing.
His was a good act for awhile — all that rhetoric about "I'm gonna clean house" and "kick some serious butt," "end the crazy deficit spending" and "tear up the credit card."
Placing the state on a sound fiscal footing — "we must live within our means" — was his most important task, after all. It's the principal reason he was elected and Davis was recalled. And Schwarzenegger failed.
Staring into a perpetual deficit hole — currently $25 billion for the next 19 months — the state isn't living within its means today any more than it was under Davis. Maybe less so.
Blame the national recession. Blame an outdated roller-coaster tax structure. Blame the Democratic spenders. Blame the tax-averse Republicans. All are at fault. But Schwarzenegger was in charge.
He stumbled over his own sound bites right out of the gate, made some bad missteps and never recovered.
First mistake: demagoguing the vehicle license fee — the so-called car tax — during his initial election campaign. "Outrageous," he asserted of Davis' raising of the fee back to its historic level after it had been temporarily cut in good times.
Once elected, Schwarzenegger felt compelled to follow through with his campaign pledge and cut the fee, costing the state roughly $4 billion annually, gradually rising to around $6 billion.
Then to pay for the fee cut — and to meet everyday expenses — the new governor talked legislators and voters into the no-pain solution of borrowing $15 billion. The state still is paying off that loan with interest, and the money was spent long ago.
The celebrity governor squandered opportunities. He could have sweet-talked the public into practically anything that first year. Big spending cuts combined with a tax increase would have been a real action hero's route, following a path charted by Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan.
Schwarzenegger had a hard time divorcing himself from Hollywood. He couldn't drop the Terminator lingo, belittling Democrats as "Girlie men," "stooges" and "losers." That hardly was a coalition-builder.
But he also alienated Republican legislators by governing around the center, not schmoozing enough and doing little to help them politically.